WASHINGTON ― The White House and Pentagon on Monday downplayed the likelihood of a three-way deal for Poland to give MiG-29 aircraft to Ukraine and for the U.S. to backfill the Polish fleet with American F-16 fighters.
The cautious remarks from U.S. officials on Monday, with signals from Warsaw there would be no deal, are a blow to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksky, who pleaded with U.S. lawmakers in a Zoom call Saturday for more military planes and support as his country fights a Russian invasion.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday the administration is not opposing such a deal, but said there are significant logistical challenges, such as sending F-16s to Poland and then replacing them in the U.S.
“There are a number of challenging practical questions, including how the planes would actually be transferred from Poland to Ukraine, right? So, are they going to fly? Where will they depart from? Where will they land? Those are all very important questions here,” she said, adding: “Procuring new planes and transferring serious weapon systems often take years to do from the United States.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby sought to temper expectations as well, telling reporters “we’re very early on in a discussion here about what the possibility could be” and that it’s “not a done deal at this point.” It’s unclear how many U.S. aircraft would be involved or how they would be transported, he said.
“It’s just a discussion about the possibility of should there be a nation that would want to give aircraft and would ask for a backfill from the United States,” Kirby said in describing the talks. “Should that happen, what would that look like, how would we do that? We don’t have all the answers right now.”
On Saturday, the Polish government labeled claims it had or will provide its MiGs to Ukraine as “fake news.” A Polish Armed Forces General Command tweet replied to one claim, saying, “All the Polish Air Force #MiG29 aircraft remain at their home bases.”
The chancellery of the Polish prime minister said in a tweet: “Poland won’t send its fighter jets to #Ukraine as well as allow [it] to use its airports. We significantly help in many other areas.”
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would give “the green light” to NATO countries if they choose to provide fighter jets to Ukraine. He noted talks with Poland were underway.
Multiple U.S. lawmakers have pressed the administration to facilitate the aircraft deal, with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., saying he would “support efforts in the Senate to ... compensate our allies that provide their aircraft for Ukraine’s defense.
“I understand this is not an easy decision for these countries to make,” Menendez said in a statement. “Asking them to provide their own aircraft, especially as Russia’s military aggression edges closer to their own borders, would be unthinkable except in the direst circumstances. Unfortunately, that is the situation the world faces. Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and sacrifices.”
Poland’s 94 combat-capable aircraft include 48 F-16 fighters it began to acquire from the U.S. in 2006 and 28 MiG-29s it acquired earlier that are decades older. How ready the Polish MiG-29s are at present could impact a potential deal, said aviation expert Richard Aboulafia, the managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory.
“Those are very old planes, and the Polish air force has been prioritizing F-16s for years,” Aboulafia said.
Beyond the question of whether Poland’s older MiG-29s need fixing, it could take time to strip sensitive NATO-linked electronics and avionics from them, if they’re to be transferred to Ukraine, said William Alberque, a former NATO arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“You’re either taking a fighter they don’t need and doing an overhaul, which takes time and the replacement of parts, or you’re taking a frontline aircraft that’s needed for different purposes,” Alberque said. “No Polish military [official] or politician will want to say ‘We’re giving a bunch of planes to Ukraine and we’re a little less safe now,’ but if they can leverage it, I’d rather have a refurbished F-16 than a MiG-29 any day of the week.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.